Friday, January 08, 2010

Lucha Corpi on Writing, Research, and the Birth of Eulogy for a Brown Angel

Today a very special treat: an essay from Lucha Corpi that explains some of her writing process; more specifically, how she was "inspired" to write her memorable, award-winning novel Eulogy for a Brown Angel (one of my all-time favorite novels) and how Gloria Damasco, Chicana private eye, first made an appearance. This essay originally was posted, in a slightly different version, as a response to blog host Book-lover Carol's question during Lucha's virtual Latino Book Tour ( for Death at Solstice: Who is your main character and how do you plot your mystery novels? Thank you, Lucha, for sharing. Readers - enjoy and learn.

Gloria Damasco, Private Investigator and Clairvoyant

I first saw and heard Gloria Damasco, Chicana P.I., when I was in the Sierra Nevada in California. I was trying to revise and organize a poetry manuscript, Variaciones sobre una tempestad/Variations on a Storm, which was already due at the press. Friends in Donner Lake, a short drive from Lake Tahoe, offered me a stay in their condo there for a week, so I could get my work done. Four days later, my poetry manuscript was ready. But, since I had the condo for two more days, I decided to stay and get some rest.

I had taken with me some CDs, among them a recording of the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly. I am not an opera buff, but for some unknown reason, I was obsessed with that opera, especially the aria Un Bel Di. I had also started a list of books I wanted to read about the architecture and the wine industry in Napa and Sonoma Valleys, also known as the Wine Country. Before my stay in Donner Lake, I had made repeated trips to both valleys and, for unclear reasons, to East L.A. to study gangs and the events that led to a riot during the 1970 National Chicano Moratorium. I was also researching an elixir I had come across during a trip to Brazil, and the history of the Peralta family in the East Bay. I had already decided to write my first mystery novel, Eulogy for a Brown Angel, and sensed, more than knew, that all of my obsessions and interests had to do with the plotting of the novel, yet had no idea how they would eventually fit together. Nor had I conceived my main character, the detective that would need access to all that knowledge and experience.

Looking for books on research topics to read during my sojourn in the mountains, I paid a fruitless visit to a local bookstore in Lake Tahoe. I bought instead a P.D. James mystery novel and drove back to Donner Lake. I took a walk along the lakeshore, getting back to the condo when dark heavy clouds began to gather above the mountains. The sunset was still two hours away. I made sure the sliding doors to the lake were locked before I went up the spiral staircase to the living area on the upper level.

I turned on my CD player and began to listen to Puccini’s opera then lay down on the sofabed to read the mystery novel. About an hour later, I slipped into a deep sleep only to be awakened later by a loud noise and to total darkness around me. I was sure someone was in the sleeping area downstairs. My thoughts immediately raced down the spiral staircase to the sliding doors. Had I locked them after all? Was someone down there, lurking, waiting? How long before the intruder made his way up the spiral staircase?

I listened intently. I was hyperventilating, trembling; my heart raced. But I forced myself to sit up while I weighed the risks of going downstairs and confronting the intruder. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and as quietly as could be done, I walked to the fireplace and got hold of the poker, then began my descent, barefoot, taking one step and deep breath at a time. I stood at the foot of the stairs and surveyed the area then walked to the sliding doors and checked them. They were locked. I looked behind each closet and room door and under each bed till I was satisfied no one was there.

As I got to the top of the stairs, my heart did a Mexican hat dance in my chest. Something or someone, a white raggedy gown on, its arms flailing wildly, swayed and gestured just outside the sliding doors to the dark balcony.

“My God!” I said, sucking in breath. “It’s not of this world.”

The phantasm went on with its macabre dancing. I put down the poker still in my hand and looked around for a cross but saw none. So I made the sign of the cross and walked closer. The specter turned out to be a large white windsock, dancing in the night wind. I had no idea who had hung it from a branch of the pine next to the balcony during my long nap. I dropped to the floor, laughing and crying alternately.

I was scared out my wits, still shaking and breathing hard when I made myself a cup of coffee and sat in an easy chair, cloaked in a cotton blanket and darkness, unable to close my eyes, except for quick blinks. Closer to dawn, I turned on the CD player, hoping that Madame Butterfly would lull me to sleep. It took at least a half hour for the soprano to reach the first heart-wrenching phrases of the aria Un Bel Di, and for my eyes to finally close for what seemed only seconds. As if on a red screen inside my lids, I saw a pair of dark hands and arms and nestled between them a toddler, a little boy, who appeared to be asleep.

“I am Gloria. And this child is for you,” a woman’s voice said as she handed me the little boy. I extended my arms to receive her gift. They were still outstretched when I opened my eyes.

I heard the crack of thunder in the distance, the same noise that had wakened me up the night before. It was noon and the thunderstorm was moving in. It would soon be raging right above Donner Lake. Driving down the mountain in such unsettled weather made no sense. I made lunch and ate. Then I picked up my notebook and wrote: “Luisa and I found the child lying on his side in a fetal position.” This is the opening line of Eulogy for a Brown Angel, my first Gloria Damasco mystery novel.

In time, I learned that Gloria possessed some sort of psychic power. Was she a kind of fortuneteller? Palm reader, perhaps? Did she delve in Black or White Magic? Maybe she was a healer, then again maybe a sorceress. Was she a New Age or Old Age psychic? There was so much to research. And I dove into the psychic pool without hesitation.

I attended countless psychic fairs, séances, mid-summer and mid-winter solstice celebrations, Sabbaths, had my fortune read many times, my aura cleansed at least twice, had regressions to at least four past lives, visited with a clairvoyant, and attempted astral projection, but my reptilian brain refused to let my spirit soar freely. I learned the techniques for channeling and regression to past lives and used them on my most trusted poet friends, with some fascinating results.

At every séance, Sabbath, solstice celebration and psychic encounter, I asked for receipts. I mostly got them from well-established psychic institutes; none from the mediums at séances or spiritualistic sessions, who always eyed me with suspicion. At home, I put the receipts in a Mexican basket together with the rest of my tax receipts and documents. I had to justify my research expenses. And they were legitimate research tax deductions for a writer, or so I thought until the IRS decided to audit my tax return two years after the facts. By that time, Eulogy had been published. And I had the book to prove that indeed my delving into the mantic arts was a legitimate endeavor for a writer who respects her art and wants to be factual. Eventually, I was notified that I owe Uncle Sam nothing.

Long before my dealings with the IRS, as I wrote Eulogy, I found out that Gloria Damasco is a clairvoyant. In each of the novels, she tries to explain to herself and to the rest of us what her dark gift is all about. In Death at Solstice, her latest adventure, published by Arte Público Press in 2009, she says:

“… Prior to the night before, I had never been able to save anyone whose life, in my visions, was fated to end. It bothered me no end to see what fatal blow destiny had in store for someone yet be unable to prevent it. But that was the nature of this dark gift, this extrasensory prescience in me—la otra.

“Most people did not understand what clairvoyance was. My visions weren’t a tidied bunch of related scenes laid out, like a classic story, in a linear narrative. They varied from images to smells and sounds that bombarded my dreams. My subconscious somehow sorted them out and stored them until, if ever, I worked on a related case.

“Talking with some of my poet friends over the years, I realized that poets, without being aware of it, also went through a similar process as mine. All the incongruent elements of a poem were already present at various levels of consciousness or the subconscious. In the poet’s case, the outcome was the poem. In mine, the results were not so easily discernible, not even for me.

“Although at times I still doubted the legitimacy of my dark gift, I seldom allowed myself not to act on a vision. I pushed myself to do the necessary legwork to solve its cryptic warnings, regardless of its outcome. It was the only way to keep my twin psyches in check, my split spirit in harmony.

“What would happen when I entered the darkness of another recurring vision plaguing my dreams more and more often? Two pairs of black eyes watching me in the night; a phantom horse and the horseman on him; the redolence of gardenia and rose and candle wax in the night air; the black curls and sweet face of a boy toddler searching for his mother; an animal’s growl; a place of worship by the water’s edge, steeped in the suffering of people; the voice of a woman saying, ‘Find this place and you’ll find me.’ Would I survive being trapped in a body of water unable to free myself before my breath bubbled totally out of me?”

Gloria’s reason is forever running interference. She is always trying to prove to herself that she indeed possesses a dark gift. She is compelled by her visions to take a case, but she solves it by following and analyzing clues, using her powers of deduction, as any normal P.I. would, to bring the criminal to justice.

In some way, Gloria’s visions form and inform the plot of Death at Solstice as is also the case in any of the novels in the series. Her visions become my obsessions and concerns and I follow them. But like Gloria, I also do my share of legwork, by doing my research thoroughly, experiencing to the extent safely possible what I must write about, including the handling of firearms, so Gloria has everything she needs to solve the case at a moment’s notice. That's my job. I am Lucha Corpi, Gloria Damasco’s ghost writer.

Oakland, California
Copyright: 2009

Lucha Corpi is a poet, novelist and children's book author. In addition to Death at Solstice (Arte Público Press, 2009) she has written three other mystery novels featuring Gloria Damasco, all published by Arte Público Press: Black Widow's Wardrobe (1999), Cactus Blood (1995) and Eulogy for a Brown Angel (1992). Corpi was a tenured teacher in the Oakland Public Schools Neighborhood Centers Program for over 30 years. She is now retired and lives in Oakland, California.




msedano said...

Lucha, Manuel, thanks for this informatively interesting column. I share Lucha's attraction to Un bel di haunting melody and cross-cultural tension. et poi, a novel appare.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Lucha. I loved this article and learning about all you had to do to create your MC and what wonderful things happened to you.

Thank you La Bloga for having Lucha Corpi as a guess on your blog and for mentioning the Latino Book Tours . We were very excited to have such an accomplished and popular author as Lucha Corpi on our book tours.

Thank you,
Jo Ann Hernandez
BronzeWord Latino Book Tours

Anonymous said...

Forgot to mention. Readers can learn more about Lucha Corpi and her books at her new website:

It's full of fun facts about this beautiful person. Thanks,
Jo Ann Hernandez
BronzeWord Latino Authors

Misa said...

Gloria sounds like a wonderful character, Lucha. I can't wait to pick up a copy of your book (and then the backlist).

nilki said...


I'm very much looking forward to your next poetry book. It was such a gift to be able to interview you at my blog during your book tour.

It was a true honor!

Anna Rodriguez said...

What a wonderful post! Thank you, La Bloga, for sharing this with the world! I had the honor of interviewing and hosting the brilliant Lucha Corpi back in December on my blog. She made quite an impression on me and my writing. When I learned that she was featured here today I just had to check it out. Her writing is beautiful, captivating, and appears to flow effortlessly.

Jo Ann, thanks for sharing the news about Lucha's website. I went right over and discovered that she has my interview up. Thanks to you and Latino Book Tours for allowing me the opportunity to meet Lucha Corpi!

All the best,

bookjourney said...

Great post! You have a lot of information in here and this looks like something I would enjoy. :)

Terri Molina said...

I enjoyed your post, Lucha. You always have such intriguing stories.

Lucha Corpi said...

Gracias, Manuel, for hosting me today. And Michael, Jo Ann, Misa, Terri and R. and BKJNY for your kind comments and visiting with me. You're right: La Bloga is great! I read each post early in the morning while I have my coffee. It keeps informed and inspired. Abrazos a todos. Lucha

Teresa Carbajal Ravet said...

I had the pleasure of meeting Lucha at the Texas Book Fest this past year and was delighted to stop by La Bloga for a quick visit. Gracias a Lucha y La Bloga for the enticing post. It mystically pulls you right in. ;-)

Hope you drop by this year on your next Latino Book Tour!


Lilixtreme said...

For more information on Lucha, everyone should check out the book tour she has done with Latino Book Tours.